January 1, 1970Just one piece again this week, a profile of the pianist Danilo Perez. But several jazz stories are in the works for next week, beginning with one in tomorrow's fall arts preview.
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Pianist Perez has learned to loosen up
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | September 17, 2004
In an early rehearsal as a member of Wayne Shorter's quartet, pianist Danilo Perez was asked by the sax great to play "water chords." After pondering the cryptic request, Perez showed up for the next day's session with 20 or so chords he hoped might pass muster. Shorter's response, Perez recalls, was, "'the water has to be clean. The water you're doing is dirty.'"
Perez eventually found what Shorter was looking for. But the experience, he says, made him think, "'Wow, I'm in for a trip here.'"
Now Perez is applying lessons he learned with the Shorter band — widely considered among the most exciting and forward-looking groups in jazz for its abstract and improvisational pieces — to his work with his much-praised trio, which includes bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz. The group will wrap up two nights of free-wheeling performances at the Real Deal Jazz Club & Cafe tonight. (A Web-only release of live music from the trio's performances at Chicago's Jazz Showcase last year is due out next month from ArtistShare.)
Perez, a full-time faculty member at New England Conservatory, wasn't always comfortable with that style. Playing in Dizzy Gillespie's United Nations Orchestra from 1989 to 1992, he learned how Latin American influences could be brought to bear on straight-ahead jazz. The compositions he played then, he says, were "more of a finished product." With Shorter, he says, the thinking was "OK, let's start from zero."
Starting from zero is something Perez and his trio have gravitated toward. It's not uncommon for them to finish a set and realize they'd played only a couple of actual tunes, with everything else created on the fly. Even existing repertoire, when they call upon it, is used as a departure point. "Sometimes I bring a chart or something," Perez says in his South Boston apartment, "but most of the time it's really spontaneous and [we] just play in the moment."
The approach is not without risks. "Sometimes the noodling gets to the audience," Perez says, though he's willing to take chances in hopes of pushing his music forward. Other times, one of the band members may hit upon an idea, and the others will struggle to find a way to jump in and join him.
One thing all this freedom doesn't bring with it, though, is the dissonance often associated with terms such as "avant-garde" or "free jazz," which some listeners find off-putting.
"Even when he's exploring, the harmonic underpinnings are there, and he's got a very strong rhythmical sense," notes Donal Fox, another top Boston-based pianist with Panamanian roots.
When Perez isn't playing with his trio, his schedule is, you could say, a little busy. Besides his work in the Shorter quartet, he's also the official cultural ambassador of Panama, in which capacity he launched and now oversees the annual Panama Jazz Festival. And in addition to his day job at NEC, he teaches part time at Berklee College of Music.
That Perez, 38, would want to mentor others is not surprising. He rattled off a list of his own mentors long enough to take up this entire column. Some highlights included his father (also named Danilo), a singer and school administrator who encouraged his son's love of music; the jazz singer Jon Hendricks, who hired Perez for his first professional jazz gig out of Berklee in the mid-'80s; saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, who rekindled Perez's interest in Latin American music; Gillespie; and most recently Shorter.
Perez enjoys passing on that knowledge to his students. Many want to know how to play the unstructured way that Perez does with Shorter. Most aren't prepared for that level yet, but when they get there, he'll be waiting. In jazz, he's learned to be ready for anything.
The Danilo Perez Trio will close out its two-night stand tonight at the Real Deal Jazz Club & Cafe, 41 Second St., Cambridge. Shows at 7:30 and 10 p.m. $18. Call 617-876-7777.
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company